Category Archives: Flockkeeping

When Chickens Sympose

I have to admit that when Oakhurst Community Garden director Stephanie Van Parys first uttered the words “Chicken Symposium” to me a few months ago, the image that popped into my brain was a gathering of chickens wearing little togas across their breasts and wreaths of laurel around their combs, sitting around an elegant Hellenic room reclined on pillows and sofas and wildly gesticulating with their wings, beaks open in passionate debate.

This is what a liberal arts education does for you (thank you, Professor Behan of intro philosophy). At least I keep myself amused.

Baby chicks for the raffle

I was even more amused when I arrived at the Decatur Recreation Center the morning of  February 6 to discover that, in fact, the chickens were right there in the mix. There were two bins of four-day-old chicks, plus Linda Hamilton’s array of fancy breeds (silkies, silver-laced wyandottes, and a few adorable little bantams that I wanted to steal!). And believe me, all of them had plenty to say.

Cute and cuddly bantam

Linda and her lovely ladies

And so did the speakers. It was a strong line-up. Jonathan Watts-Hull (who, I am proud to say, got his start after taking the first Chicks in the City class we ever offered and was our “star pupil”) led a session on “chicken chores,” Linda (who once took the class because she just wanted to meet some other folks interested in chickens) talked about breed selection, Andy “The Chicken Whisperer” Schneider was there to teach on illnesses and diseases, Veronique Perrot (also a class alumna) talked about how her chickens work for her in her garden. Greg Haney was there to talk about coop design. And I taught a session I called “Chicks Rule,” which was a crash course introduction to keeping chickens.

Taking questions, flapping wings

After two parallel tracks in the morning, we all gathered for some Q&A from the 50 or so folks who had signed up for the half-day symposium, eager to launch their flockkeeping careers. As you can see (below, center), I gesticulated wildly with my wings, beak open. And then the big excitement: a dozen folks went home with baby chicks to get them started!

So the first ever Chicken Symposium went off without a hitch, but with plenty of cackles, skwawks (hey! a palindrome!), and peeps. Can’t wait to hear what they have to say next year.

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The Land of Ooze

Mud pie, mud in your eye;
Mud on a snake bite, don’t you die;
Take a little rain, take a little dirt,
Make a little mud, get it on your shirt.
We’re all just slogging through the mud.

—Guy Clark, “Mud”

Songwriter and truth-teller Guy Clark was never so right — after a year of record rainfalls following years of dusty drought, we are all just slogging through the mud. It has rained here for most of the week. Most of the month, maybe even. The cats don’t like it, the dog doesn’t like it, the chickens don’t like it. Everyone’s getting a little crazy from it. And Georgia’s small farmers have been devastated by flooded fields and lost topsoil and fertilizer (to contribute to the Georgia Farmer Flood Relief Fund, please click here).

Me, I just pull on my big yellow galoshes and get out there. I miss my garden, and I want to watch the broccoli grow. There is only one way to get scraps out of the kitchen, and that is to slop through the mud to the compost bin at the back of my lot. We try to keep the floor of the coop dry with a box fan mounted overhead, but this much water seeps in under the foundation, and the mucky mess needs to be scraped and shoveled out. The hens stay inside or up on roosts as much as they can, but they can’t help but get some of the ooze on their feet and feathers.

"Please dry my feet."

Yesterday I dragged Caleb out into it for a brisk evening trot around the neighborhood. He protested at first, but we both resigned ourselves to getting wet, and I am quite sure it was glee I was seeing on his face as he shook all that mud onto my kitchen floor and cabinets when we got home.

You have to get out there. You have to get a little mud on you. It helps if you remember that we came from mud — the primordial ooze. We all just crawled out of the mud, Guy sings.

But we enjoyed coming in from the rain and mud, too. Caleb loves a good toweling off. For me, it was dry socks and the braised cabbage, roasted sweet potato wedges, and biscuits I had made earlier in the week.

Maybe I’ll make a mud pie for dessert.


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Snow Day on the Southern Urban Homestead

Well, one can hardly call it “snow,” because it was less than an inch, but in classic Atlanta style, our roads are sheets of ice. The world (around here, anyway) has ground to a halt. Here are a few scenes from our silent, frozen morning.

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New Year’s Molt

Poor bedraggled Latifah

For the past week or so, the coop has been aflooff (I just invented that word, but none other would do) with feathers and down. The chickens are staging a mass molt. According to flockkeeper lore, molting ain’t fun for anybody. The girls are dropping their old plumage and growing their new. From an evolutionary perspective, it must be part of what links chickens to their close reptilian cousins (scientists tell us that chickens are direct descendants of the T. rex) — shedding skin, shedding feathers.

Poor scrawny Lili

They do seem pretty miserable. Most of them aren’t laying, and they look pathetic — all mangy and scraggly. And they’re cranky and tired — Victoria spent all day in a nesting box last week. (The rain, mud, cold temperatures, and short days don’t help.) It takes a lot of energy to build new feathers.

I wonder if the girls chose the turn into new year for their big molt on purpose. It seems like a good idea, to slough off all the old, dead stuff and to replace it with something tender and delicate with new life, with potential to be healthy and luminous and resilient. Clean out the closets, the expired foodstuffs in the pantry. Let go of past resentments and fears — the scars that have formed over old wounds.

Off with the old

It’s a hell of a process — uncomfortable, exhausting, even ugly — but aren’t we ready to be shed of those vestiges and welcome whatever comes next?

When I cleaned the coop the other day, all those dropped feathers went with the straw and manure into the compost. It’s not as if the old stuff is to be left behind and forgotten. It will work under the surface now, in new, hidden ways. It starts the cycle over again, preparing to help nourish the spring garden.

I’ve felt a bit bedraggled this holiday season, myself. Guess I was due a good molt. For the days of auld lang syne.

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The Great Colonel Sanders Lookalike Contest

Every now and then we give the chickens a generous helping of cottage cheese to ensure that they’re getting enough calcium to make good, strong eggshells. This usually instigates a riot in the coop. They love the stuff and just bury their faces in it and inhale. Here are some photos of this afternoon’s festivities, just for fun.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Southern Urban Homestead!

Warming up for the big competition: Elton, Freddie, Latifah, Lucy

A strong early showing: Victoria and Latifah

Freddie may take the title . . .

But Elton reigns victorious (while Guinevere glares in envy)

The winner and the two runners-up auditioned for this video, but the producers only wanted white leghorns. Elton, Freddie, and Guinevere have filed discrimination lawsuits. A hearing is pending.

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“Even girls can be farmers?”

One morning this past week, at the request of a friend who teaches at the elementary school near my home, I hosted a visit of the school’s kindergarten class. According to our state’s department of education, as a southern urban homesteader, I apparently count as a “community helper.”

Kinder in the garten

The first thing the kids saw when they arrived was the garden. I explained that some plants like lots of hot weather to grow, and some plants like cool weather. And since this was November, what was growing right now was broccoli and salad greens and beets and Swiss chard, because they like it cool. (I also explained about the Squirrel-Proof Net Tent, and that squirrels eat more than just acorns. I tried not to use bad words, but it was not easy.)

Tasting vinegar and salt in homemade dill pickles

We then moved on to the canning and preserving demonstration. We talked about what happens if you pick some green beans in the summer and then leave them in a bowl in your kitchen, thinking you’ll eat them in November–you get rotten green beans. Then we talked about how salt and vinegar helps keep food from going bad so quickly. Finally, everybody got to taste some homemade dill pickles made with homegrown cucumbers: salt and vinegar.

Mutual curiosity

After the taste test came the highlight of the visit—the chickens. There was lots of chicken talk and good questions (“What do the chickens eat?” “Are there baby chicks in those eggs?” “Why do they peck?” “Do you have any roosters? Why not?”). The chickens were just as curious about their visitors as the visitors were about the chickens. We looked at how different colored chickens lay different colored eggs. We also talked about how the eggs weren’t the only benefit from the chickens, but that their poop is great for fertilizer for the garden, so the chickens help the vegetables grow, and then they get to eat some of the vegetables. We cracked an egg open so they could see that it looks just like the ones they eat, only better!

We got the guitar out (apparently this fulfills another state requirement) and all sang a chicken song together. This is a little tune I wrote for my adorable niece. It has many verses, but here’s the one we sang:

Bok bok baaack!

What do the chickens do all day?
Peck and peck and peck and peck!
What do the chickens do all day?
Peck and peck and peck and peck!
They peck outside, they peck indoors
Take a little break then they peck some more
They’re happy and they never get bored
Peck and peck and peck and peck!

Then we sang a verse with the chickens, in their own language:

Bok bok-bok bok bok bok bok bok?
Bok bok bok bok bok bok bok!
Bok bok-bok bok bok bok bok bok?
Bok bok bok bok bok bok bok!
Bok bok baaaahk, bok bok baaaahk!
bokiebokiebok, bokie bok bok bok!
Bok bokie bok bok bok bok bok,
Bok bok bok bok bok bok bok!

It was quite the rousing chorus. Some even threw in a few funky chicken moves.

As they were leaving, one little girl asked, “So this is a farm?” I said, “Well, it has gardens and animals that are living and growing and giving us food, so I think it counts as a farm, even in the city.” Then she asked, “Even girls can be farmers?”

Here’s hoping that’s a seed sown.

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What I learned from a bunch of city chicks, part the second

Chicks and the City underway at the Southern Urban Homestead

The Chicks in the City class meets at the Southern Urban Homestead

We began this tale with a look at one flockkeeper’s beginnings, the growing fascination around my neighborhood as word got out that there were actual chickens in my backyard, and a brief account of the first Cluckapalooza.

In the meantime, a local environmental education nonprofit, the Oakhurst Community Garden, had asked my neighbors and me to develop a two-hour workshop for area folks interested in keeping chickens themselves. Not sure our nascent knowledge really qualified us to lead such a class, we put together a syllabus on topics ranging from local ordinances and coop design to breed selection and health issues. In October 2004, we offered the first “Chicks in the City,” a two-hour workshop for ten people. Not only did the class fill up, but it was over-enrolled and still had a waiting list. And so it has gone every time we teach it (which we did regularly until last year). We even taught it to an SRO crowd of eighty people at this year’s Georgia Organics conference.

Our students came from Atlanta’s in-town neighborhoods as well as the suburbs and exurbs. Some grew up with chickens themselves, or, more frequently, they would say, “My grandmother kept chickens. I used to love to gather eggs.” Some were trying to convince a spouse they can do this successfully; others had recently begun keeping chickens and come with specific questions.

babychx

People who take Chicks in the City learn to keep birds from hatchlings on.

Most impressive to us, however, were the experienced flock keepers who simply wanted to meet other like-minded folks. A neurosurgical nurse who took the class had been keeping chickens for several years when she enrolled one winter. She keeps thirty chickens on her three and one-half acres on the outskirts of Atlanta, but she acquired her first chick while living in an apartment complex in Decatur. “I would take her out and let her graze in the grass,” she told me, “and she was completely tame and knew where she lived and would go up the stairs to the apartment. I had lived there ten years, and people I had never spoken to who had lived there just as long ended up coming over to see the chickens.”

In hopes of encouraging workshop “alumni” to keep in touch and share ideas and inspiration, we set up a newsgroup at yahoo.com for the growing community of chicken keepers in our area. The “Citychickens” group members trade advice about local breeders, ideas for coop designs, predator updates (anyone else noticed how the hawk and owl population has boomed along with the chicken population intown?), advice about where—or where not—to acquire birds.

Another workshop alumnus, a local Waldorf School teacher, introduced his third-graders to flockkeeping. His students helped build the coop, and they are responsible for the birds’ daily care—food; water; a clean, comfortable shelter; and some free-range time each day. “Most of the children love it, but they also have learned that it takes some effort and discipline,” he said. “I think they’re learning to respect the tasks and the chickens.”

ocgpcoop

The volunteer-built coop at the Oakhurst Community Garden in Decatur

In autumn 2005, a similar desire to connect kids to their natural environment drove another expansion of Decatur’s chicken-centered community. A group of volunteers—mostly parents of young children—designed and built a chicken coop at the Oakhurst Community Garden, which owns an acre and a half of greenspace that serves as an outdoor classroom for environmental education. Soon five laying hens were installed—another demonstration of how community and sustainable living really do nourish one another. The Oakhurst Garden inaugurated “Team Chicken,” a spirited collective of six families who share in the volunteer care of the birds, from the morning and evening check and feeding to weekend coop-cleaning chores.

The team, most of whom had never been around chickens, have shared the challenges of learning to care for the birds, rejoiced together over the arrival of eggs, and even grieved together when they lost a hen to egg yolk peritonitis. One mother of two young daughters offered to coordinate Team Chicken “because I really wanted to get more involved in the community,” she said. “I’ve focused so much on my kids that I realized I’d been very disconnected. We wanted the chickens to be a part of the community landscape for our kids, because I had seen how kids interacted with them.”

She added that her early morning chicken chores at the Oakhurst Garden have also taken on a much-needed contemplative dimension for her. “Sometimes I take my older daughter with me, but I like going over alone, too. Sunday mornings are so quiet—I hear the birds as I walk over. It’s very rewarding, to feel for a moment like I’m amidst nature, or at least closer to it.”

That longing for both solitude and society caught the interest of an anthropologist friend of mine. She has pursued a study of how urban dwellers are increasingly appreciating such opportunities to reconnect with nature and one another. She began with a survey of Team Chicken, asking them to respond “yes” or “no” to statements such as, “I want to deepen my sense of connection to this place where I live,” and, “This work lets me be more connected with my family’s farming past.” For some, she found, the power of engagement with nature is very powerful. It’s restorative, as well; people see these activities as important for their mental health. It’s an ethical activity, too—some of the respondents like that they’re living more sustainably on the earth. For others, the work is fun and also connected to deep spiritual values. The fascination the children feel is often shared by their parents and neighbors—the chickens become a focus for neighborhood interaction and friendliness.

Four years into the Team Chicken experiment, the birds at the Oakhurst Garden are thriving, and so are their caregivers. A few challenges have cropped up along the way, but mostly it’s confusion about the schedule. A staff member at the Garden often fills the gaps, and the group mounted a flagpole on the coop to help signal that the birds had been let out or tucked up for the evening. Good, reliable email communication and the occasional group meeting at the coop seems to help.eggs

With the chicks we acquired for the Southern Urban Homestead this past spring, our flock is up to eleven birds. We get eggs that are cream-colored, blue, green, chocolate brown, and almost red. And later this month, a kindergarten teacher will be bringing her students over to visit. Apparently, as an urban homesteader, I’m a “community helper,” according to the Georgia state department of education.

Makes sense to me.

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What I learned from a bunch of city chicks, part the first

Can you tell which one is our egg and which is commercial?

Which is our egg, and which is storebought?

Saving the planet was not foremost on my mind when I decided to start keeping chickens. As I have written before, I wanted to link my rural roots to my more recently established city self. Really, though, it was about the eggs. Fresh, yummy eggs with yolks as richly yellow as new dandelions.

But I was soon to discover that urban flockkeeping is about much more. Indeed, there is a growing movement of city folk who are discovering the pleasures of keeping a few chickens. Books have been written. Documentary films have been made. I was on National Public Radio talking about my chickens. And for many of us, one of the greatest satisfactions is knowing that our food hasn’t traveled thousands of miles over land and sea, at the cost of untold quantities of fuel, to get to our tables.

Indeed, my next-door neighbors, with whom I share the costs, labor, and benefits of our birds, and I quickly saw what community can really mean in a huge metropolitan area. Our little poultry project unexpectedly tapped into the quickly expanding ranks of people who are seeking ways to connect with the origins of their food—and with one another in an often isolating and artificial urban world.

Our avian adventure is a story of identity, friendship, and flock formation, you might say. My neighbors also grew up in rural places, in West Virginia and western North Carolina, and shared my longings for something like home. When we discovered to our surprise that it was legal to keep poultry in Decatur, we decided one evening in 2004, during an across-the-backyard-fence chat, to give it a shot.

In spite of living quite congenially next door for ten years, my neighbors and I had never has any real imperative to get to know each other well. But for this project, they brought design and carpentry skills that I lacked, and I had an existing building on my property that would serve as a fine henhouse.

Foraday (background), Lucy (the redhead), and her sidekick, Ethel (blonde) enjoy a sun-dappled dustbath

Foraday (background), Lucy (the redhead), and her sidekick, Ethel (the blonde), enjoy a sun-dappled dustbath

We began meeting for dinner to pore over poultry books, draw up plans, and research local breeders. Together we hammered, stapled, and stretched chicken wire on our new coop, most of which we built from recycled materials. One afternoon we headed north of town to pick out two Buff Orpington chicks from a breeder. I will never forget the late summer evening our first five pullets were at last happily scratching and clucking in the coop, as the three of us sat watching with our (what else?) cocktails raised to new friends—feathered and otherwise.

News of our endeavor spread quickly. Neighbors we had never met soon tapped on our doors, curious about our birds. Drawn to what amounts to an exotic animal in the midst of Georgia’s most densely populated city, they wanted their kids to understand where their scrambled eggs (and chicken dinners) came from. Neighborhood kids brought other neighborhood kids. We would often find ourselves delivering informal lectures on the requirements and benefits of keeping chickens in the city.

Scene from Cluckapalooza I

Scene from the first-ever Cluckapalooza

By the fall, we had had so many visitors that we decided to throw a party to celebrate all things chicken. The first Cluckapalooza, now an annual event, drew about seventy-five friends. We strung lights around the coop and decorated it with flowers and art. Guests admired both the “East Wing” (my side, where the family resides) and the “west wing” (my neighbors’ side, where all the power resides) of the coop. Everyone feasted on a huge potluck dinner, including deviled eggs from our hens and other treats from my garden, now enriched with copious chicken manure. Games—with prizes—included a clucking competition, a Funky Chicken dance-off, and a contest to name one of our new birds (“Delilah” was the winning entry, but “Layla” ran a close second). Musicians brought their instruments and played their favorite chicken songs (there are more than you’d think).

A frittata from our "girls'" eggs I recently prepared with roasted peppers from my garden, potatoes from my CSA, and some turkey andouille sausage I got from the DeKalb Farmer's Market. Salad was arugula (my garden) and baby lettuce (CSA) with muscadines (CSA) and some Georgia pecans (Dekalb Farmer's Market).

A frittata from our "girls'" eggs I recently prepared with roasted peppers from my garden, potatoes from my CSA, and some turkey andouille sausage I got from the DeKalb Farmer's Market. Salad was arugula (my garden) and baby lettuce (CSA) with muscadines (CSA) and some Georgia pecans (Dekalb Farmer's Market).

But the event was more than fun and games. Our guests witnessed first-hand the role of the chickens in our turn toward a more sustainable lifestyle: they provide safe, nutritious, and delicious food that didn’t get here on a refrigerated eighteen-wheeler; they are humanely kept; they reduce household waste; they fertilize my garden; and they aid in weed and pest control.

Coming up in Part the Second: Chicks in the City, and Team Chicken (whoop!)

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The sun and the rain and the salad greens

Welcome to my Southern Urban Homestead, a long, narrow lot in a beautiful neighborhood of Decatur, Georgia, a small town situated fifteen easy minutes east of downtown Atlanta. Over the past fifteen-plus years this little slice of urban earth and I have had quite the partnership. We have rejoiced together. We have exchanged magnificent gifts. We have argued, even fought (I usually lose). But I have come to understand myself and my homestead better. I have, I like to think, become more awake, more patient, and more respectful of the nuances and cycles of my immediate natural surroundings.

I grew up in Rabun County, Georgia, in the southern tip of the Appalachians, and for most of my adult life, I have searched for ways to link my rural roots to my more recently established city self. So it made sense that I would have a garden. My mother and grandmothers kept gardens.

My grandmother's old pressure canner, my green beans

My grandmother's old pressure canner, my green beans

They also “put up”–that is, they canned and froze the produce from the garden. My dad planted an orchard–another lesson in patience–and decades later, we are still harvesting apples and pears and blueberries from the trees and bushes he planted when I was a teenager. And the offspring of his blueberry bushes now thrive in my yard here in the city.

Blueberry bushes, a fig tree, and a small garden–that is how it started, when I moved here in April 1994. Soon I had expanded the garden, added a second one, and was cramming vegetable beds into every sunny nook I could find. I improved soil and began starting all my seedlings indoors each winter, as soon as the catalogs started arriving. I started canning like my mother and grandmothers had done. I composted obsessively.

Then in 2004, my neighbors and I acquired our first batch of baby chicks–fulfilling a dream I’d had for several years. We all wanted the eggs, of course, but my garden wanted the chicken poop. Thus launched an exploration of what community can really mean in a huge metropolitan area. Our little poultry project unexpectedly tapped into an exciting local movement of folks who wanted to model a certain kind of ethical living and to connect with one another in an often isolating and artificial urban world.

Our latest spring chicks

Our latest spring chicks

This blog will tell stories of how we connect and interconnect around food–where it comes from, how it circulates, brings us together, shapes our identities both as individuals and as communities. There will also be stories of how we struggle with food–how it challenges us, disappoints us, forces us to work hard and get creative, even alter our understanding of what food is. There will be tales of my war (well, not war exactly; more a kind of gunboat diplomacy) with the squirrels. Chronicles of my close encounters with other beasties great and small. Legends of my ongoing quest for free water. Shocking revelations of unimagined thrift. Inspiring accounts of efforts to establish a local barter economy. And culinary adventures that will, I hope, drive you to the garden yourself.

My intention here is not to live “impact free”–no extremes, no gimmicks. Rather, I aim to share my daily search for ways to live effectively, efficiently, and responsibly in an urban landscape. Growing numbers of city dwellers are becoming more thoughtful and creative about their own environmental impact as it relates to quality of life. I can think of no better reason in this world to be optimistic.

The arugula in the garden that will soon be in my dinner.

The arugula in the garden that will soon be in my dinner.

For me, it all begins with the act of providing–of feeding ourselves and those we care for. This goes to the core of how we live on the earth and with one another. It’s a daily invitation to be mindful of labor, consumption, and reward. Even here, in the heart of the urban South, we can be aware and grateful.

Grateful for the things I need–the sun and the rain and the salad greens.

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